On a lonely highway that cuts through the endless wheat fields of eastern Ukraine, a wall of sandbags – topped by a lonely blue-and-yellow flag – marks the end of the state's control, and a new de facto border.
Out of sight, but just 10-minutes drive further east along the same Highway H15, is a second line of sandbags that marks the administrative boundary of the increasingly solid entity that calls itself the Donetsk People's Republic.
Soldiers in dark toques and camouflage gear guard both sides of this new border, but the mood is relaxed as they check passports and wave travellers through. While Ukraine's civil war still rages in some pockets – particularly in and around the ruined Donetsk International Airport – something like peace has settled over other front lines since a September ceasefire between the Ukrainian government in Kiev and the Russian-backed rebels who control Donetsk.
The political parties that topped the polls in Ukraine's parliamentary elections last weekend all put the unity of the country at the centre of their platforms. But, in fact, the Ukraine that's controlled by the government in Kiev has shrunk dramatically over the past eight months.
First came Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in March, a brazen move that Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear he has no intention of undoing. Then came the uprising in Donetsk and Lugansk, which Moscow has been accused of directly supporting with its armed forces. The United Nations said Friday that more than 4,000 people, most of them civilians, have died since fighting began in April.
The September ceasefire – which was drafted by Mr. Putin and agreed to by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko – leaves the separatists ruling another chunk of land that used to be part of Ukraine. Despite repeated violations of the ceasefire that each side blames on the other, Kiev has since granted temporary self-administration to Donetsk and Lugansk.
It was only a recognition of the reality on the ground. Emphasizing how little control Kiev has here, Ukraine's Oct. 26 parliamentary election wasn't held in the territories controlled by the Donetsk People's Republic and Lugansk People's Republic. Instead, the two entities will elect their own "people's councils" on Sunday, a vote that Mr. Poroshenko is bitterly protesting but which Moscow has already indicated it will recognize.
It's another stage in the emergence of the two regions – which are referred to by Mr. Putin as part of "Novorossiya," or "New Russia" – as a ministate akin to the Russian backed breakaway regions of Trans-Dniestr in Moldova, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. The Donetsk People's Republic recently announced it had established its own central bank, and would eventually move from using the Ukrainian hryvnia to the Russian ruble.
While the battle for the airport still rages – with Ukrainian commandos holding out amid a prolonged and bloody rebel siege – something like normalcy has descended on other parts of Donetsk.
Neighbourhoods near the airport are shattered, and largely deserted. At one point, an estimated 40 per cent of this city's pre-war population of one million had fled, some to Russia, many to other parts of Ukraine. Only a handful of lights were on in a cluster of nine-storey high apartment blocks in the south of the city on Friday night.
But while most of those who left are staying away, others are trickling back. And the centre of Donetsk, once all but paralyzed by the war, has started to come back too.
While the areas near the airport remain a no-go zone for non-combatants, the city's yellow buses and red-and-white trams are now running as usual on many routes. There are no functioning commercial banks in the city, but some of the restaurants along the central Pushkin Boulevard are open again, and children were playing in the park there at dusk on Friday.
The local government headquarters, turned into a crude fort surrounded by a wall of tires and razor wire during after separatists first seized it in April, is also returning to something like normal. The tires and razor wire are gone, as are most of the posters railing against the "fascist" government in Kiev and U.S. interference in the country.
Access to the building is still controlled by Kalashnikov-wielding fighters, but inside there are also civil servants, trying to run something like a government. Some of the offices look much like they did before the war.
On an engraved sign at the entrance to the building, the word "regional" has been scratched away so that it reads only "Donetsk government." Also chiselled off the facade is the word "Ukraine."